Thursday, June 12, 2014

USA Midseason Awards Part 1: WTA

The inaugural post for this blog focuses on the US women's 2014 season through the end of Roland Garros. It's long, hope you enjoy!

US women's tennis is in an interesting position. By most measures, it's possibly the strongest nation out there: #1 player in the world; most women in the top 50, 100, and 200; most WTA titles* & majors won among active players. Tennis Grrrl has us ranked as the best tennis nation (based on ranking points of the top 10 players) by a wide margin.

However, it's a hollow strength. Most of the success is due to two exceptional women, both well into their 30s. One title by a woman not surnamed Williams since 2008. No Fed Cup win since the turn of the Millennium. That said, given the number of young players in the Top 200 (including 4 of the Top 10 ranked teens & 6 top-75 players under 24 years old) there is plenty of room for optimism.

So halfway through the 2014 WTA season, how're we doing? The answer is a very loud "meh."

Four titles (again, all by Williamses), two additional finals, and 11 players in the Top 100 in the Road to Singapore - all these are decent to good results. But no major quarterfinals, 2 bad losses in Fed Cup, and some notable injuries stop me from giving the women of USA anything higher than a C+.

Could be worse. Should be better.

Herewith are my awards for the first half of 2014:

Top 10 half-years
1. Serena Williams - 5 wins vs Top 8 players, #4 in the Road to Singapore, 3 titles, 2 wins vs fellow Americans (in 2 matches), and #1 in the world. The best 2014 by an American on either tour.

2. Venus Williams - Titles are everything, right? Well, she's the only other titlist in the group (Dubai). Plus she got a runner up trophy in Auckland.

3. Taylor Townsend - She started the year ranked 365 and currently sits at #150. She's the 3rd youngest player in the Race to Singapore. And dang does she have charisma.

4. Christina McHale - Reached her first career final in Acapulco, where she led Cibulkova by a set before succumbing 76 36 36.

5. CoCo Vandeweghe - Jumped back into the Top 100 with authority with her 5 top-100 wins (including qualies) in Miami. SoSo otherwise.

6. Allie Kick - Dating back to last November (which counts for her 2014 points) she has 34 wins including qualies & ITFs. Got her first main draw win in Monterrey.

7. Victoria Duval - Reached a career high of 126 thanks in part to 13 wins in qualifying. Paying those dues could see her into the Top 100 this summer.

8. Sloane Stephens - Was the last remaining USAmerican at both majors in the first half. Maintained her top 20 ranking when many thought she wouldn't.

9. Lauren Davis - Her biggest win of the year (over Azarenka) has the world's biggest asterisk next to it & she had a tough loss to Shvedova at RG, but generally she won the matches she was supposed to win.

10. Julia Boserup - Ranked outside the Top 300, she qualified for Monterrey, then beat Flipkens & Kiick to reach the quarters. Had to give props.

Honorable mention: The Gator girls - Peggy Porter, Josie Kuhlman & Brooke Austin all signed letters of intent to become Florida Gators this fall. They've all had some nice results this spring, highlighted by Indiana's Austin's run to the title at $10K Sumter. Gators could be monsters next year.

5 disappointing half-years 
1. Serena Williams - Only by her incredible standards, of course, but two early exits at majors (making that 3 of the last 4) = disappointing. Hugely so.

2. Sloane Stephens - No semifinals is bad enough, but it's the first round flops to Goerges & Duque Marino when she was #1 and #2 seed, respectively, that give me the most sads.

3. Maria Sanchez - Seemingly on the verge of the Top 100 last year, she's now at #277. With a bullet. Doing great in doubles, though - got her first WTA title in January!

4. Shelby Rogers - Up to #109 in March, her clay season was a dud, and she's down to #171.

5. Sanaz Marand - I hate to put her on here since she actually hasn't had a bad year, and actually reached a career-high #264 in May. But I really want her to make a push for the Top 200 and the first half of this year she had just enough disappointing losses that said push may not happen in 2014.

5 most exciting wins
1. I'm completely biased, but I have to go with CoCo Vandeweghe's out-of-nowhere second round win over Samantha Stosur in Miami this year.

2. Madison Keys d. Alize Cornet, Fed Cup. I was there. It was incredible.

3. Taylor Townsend d. Alize Cornet, Roland Garros. I wasn't there, but I heard it was incredible.

4. Christina McHale d. Alize Cornet, Sydney (not really, just wanted to tease Alize fans). Actually McHale's 6-4 in the 3rd win over Kanepi in the Acapulco quarters sticks out to me as a big one, as does her 7-5 in the 3rd win over Garcia in the semis.

5. Varvara Lepchenko's BUSTER win over Jelena Jankovic in Miami was (via my TL) edge of your seat stuff. To follow that up with a BUSTER win over Tomljanovic is legendary. Honorable mention: Megan Moulton-Levy. I'm not focused on women's doubles here, but just wanted to give a huge shout-out to the first-time title winner. Her collaboration with Dary Jurak has been fruitful indeed!

5 most crushing losses 
1. Sloane Stephens to Flavia Pennetta, Indian Wells QF. If Sloane fails to win a tournament her entire career, I will point to that match as the reason why. Having upset Ivanovic in the 2nd round, Sloane was a slight favorite vs Pennetta. But she didn't bring her best tennis that day, and was down early. Seemingly out of it a set and a break down, she turned it up (while Flavia got tight) and broke when the Italian served for the match. The momentum hers, all of a sudden a fierce wind storm invaded the Coachella Valley and every point was an exercise in pure luck. Still, Sloane got an early break and had points for a 4-0 lead. But Flavia scratched her way back in it and finally took the match 64 57 64. She went on to beat 2 top-four players to win the title. By no means do I think Sloane would have won that title had she survived the quarterfinal; but although i do not usually believe in mystical forces, it was clear that *something* happened that day to thwart the #2 American. Something EEEEEVIL.

2. Madison Keys to Zheng Jie, Australian Open. Madison hasn't had a terrible year - she got to a semi and is the #3 ranked teen in the world. But this loss hurt. She served for the first set twice only to lose it in a tiebreak. She then dominated the 2nd set 6-1 and went up 4*-1 in the third. And then Zheng upped her game big-time. She went for broke on returns and completely befuddled Keys. And won 6 of the last 7 games to take the match and make me sad. So, so sad.

3. Christina McHale to Silvia Soler-Espinoza (Q) (Strausbourg SFs) 57 76(7) 63. Between her and Keys I honestly thought we'd get a maiden titlist. And then … that … happened.

4. Venus Williams to Anna Schmiedlova (RG) + Venus Williams to Ekaterina Makarova (AO) Two losses from a set up against eminently beatable (if talented) players. It's impossible to say why, so we'll just say: sigh.

5. Alison Riske to Karin Knapp, Fed Cup. USA shouldn't have lost that tie to the Italian B Team but they did. Boy howdy, did they. All the losses were disappointing but this one, cementing the tie, was the disappointingest.

Honorable mention: Louisa Chirico to Arantxa Rus 64 46 67(3), $25K Brescia. This is the fallacy of recency at work but given that Rus was the top seed and that Louisa is still seeking a breakthrough this year, it hurts.

Breakout performance 
While Townsend's star turn in Paris was the inspiration for countless breathless articles, her back-to-back wins at the USTA Pro Circuit events in Charlottesville and Indian Harbour Beach that allowed her to compete at Roland Garros were revelatory. She played those tournaments like she owned them, and left no doubt that she had arrived. And winning 4 matches in a day at IHB did much to put on hold questions about her "fitness"

Most improved 
Allie Kiick. Did anyone have her crashing into the Top 150 this soon?

Comeback player of the half-year 
Samantha Crawford. Former rising star, then "whatever happened to," now getting good results again. And she's still only 19.

Best soap opera plot 
Unfortunately, 2014 has been relatively lacking on the controversy front. Folks will try to make something of relatively harmless comments from Sloane, but overall it's been a pretty calm year for the USA. The CoCo/Poots drama is so 2013, and seemingly all the big relationship dramaz are over in Europe. Serena's "will she or won't she play Indian Wells" was pretty much a dud. So I'm going to go ahead and create some drama - and say it's perhaps time for Mary Joe Fernandez to GO as Fed Cup coach. I enjoy her as a commentator and have no doubts about her analytical ability, but that doesn't necessarily translate into being a great in-the-moment tactician or motivator. I don't know. I just think it might be time for new blood. 

Injured reserve 
Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Hampton are both electrifying players when they're on. Both have reached the top 30 - and both have fragile bodies. Unfortunately, both underwent similar major hip surgeries this spring and goodness gracious how we miss them. Melanie Oudin, too, was sidelined due to Rhabdomyolysis; Mallory Burdette and Jessica Pegula have both been inactive all year; and Alexa Glatch is similarly out of the picture. Even Anna Tatishvili - the newest addition to the American family - was in the middle of an injury hiatus when she changed her nationality.

*Wasn't able to confirm this but with at least 106 titles, it's a good bet!

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